Friday, November 11, 2022

Broken Chain: Zesto, Piedmont Road, Atlanta, GA (BONUS: Disco Kroger)


Broken Chain: A business which, at some point in its history, had multiple, similarly-functioning, physical locations where a customer could purchase goods and/or services, and which presently has a significantly diminished presence and/or value as a brand compared to the same brand in its heyday. - Zap Actionsdower

A couple of months ago, my friends and I went on a road trip to Atlanta for Labor Day weekend. The hotel we were staying at was in Buckhead, and we traveled up and down the stretch of Piedmont Road near the hotel several times over the course of our stay. It wasn't until late on the evening of Sunday, September 4th, however, that I actually noticed this building we'd been driving past the whole time. Lit up in bright neon against the dark night, what caught my eye about this mid-century diner was its architecture and its classic Sprite logo on the façade. (For those of you who don't know this about me, Sprite is my favorite soda. I also may or may not have purchased a Sprite beanie at the Coke Museum the day before.) The place was open and advertised ice cream, so we made a U-turn further down the street and decided to check it out.

Patio and mid-century diner architecture

Vintage Sprite logo. Also check out the super awesome icicles and flames (for ice cream and hot food)!

It wasn't until we got in the parking lot that I realized this wasn't just any mid-century diner -- this was, in fact, a Zesto, one of few surviving locations of a long-broken chain. You'll recall that the term "broken chain," as defined above (at the top of the post), was created by Zap Actionsdower, the author of his namesake Broken Chains blog. Sadly, Zap has since retired from blogging -- one of two great losses in the retail blogosphere of late; the author of ACME Style, who had already retired several years back, this year completely removed his blog from the internet -- but thankfully, Broken Chains (for now, at least) continues to remain up, and of course Zesto was one of the many restaurants that Zap highlighted during his tenure. You can read his full post here (please do -- it's a great read), but for the sake of giving a quick history on Zesto, I've also included an excerpt below:

In the optimistic postwar environment of 1945, inventor and entrepreneur Louis Austin Merritt “LAM” Phelan, whom I can only picture as a living, breathing, wacky cartoon inventor, was in charge of the Taylor Freezer company and looking to create a market for his latest creation, the Zest-O-Mat frozen custard machine. Zesto, a chain of franchised frozen custard stands which had the exclusive, and mandatory rights to use Zest-O-Mat machines, was the result. The chain expanded nationally during those prosperous years. Following a tumultuous decade, however, Taylor Freezer management, unaccustomed to retail businesses, and ill-equipped to deal with an ever-expanding base of franchisees with their own concerns and complaints, abandoned the Zesto brand, forcing franchisees to operate independently. Many newly-independent Zesto owners kept the Zesto name, and many surviving Zesto operators began offering hot food in addition to ice cream ... The Zesto name would end up under the control of the Wahoo, Nebraska-based TJ Investments who sells the rights to the Zesto name and logos, though the food offered at the original and new Zesto locations open for business in Indiana, Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina, and South Dakota seems to have a high degree of variation between locations.

Road sign in the parking lot

Side view of the building

Detail close-up. I love the numerous patterns in the tile and brickwork!

Indeed, the Atlanta-area Zestos no longer bear any relation to any other surviving Zestos except in name. The website for the Atlanta locations gives a bit more of a detailed history of the chain's origins, including the fact that corporate oversight lasted an exceptionally short time compared to many other broken chains: founded in 1945 and having grown to 46 states by 1949, only ten years later -- in 1955 -- Taylor Freezer Corporation "had completely abandoned the concept and left the remaining franchisees to fend for themselves."

Heading inside. Sputnik lights!

UFO lights!

Counter seating!

In Atlanta, the original franchisee was John Livaditis, who opened a store on Peachtree Road in 1949. At the time Taylor Freezer Corporation jumped ship in 1955, the franchise had grown to five locations in Atlanta, with a sixth to follow in 1959. Livaditis, like many other now-rogue Zesto franchisees, helped keep his restaurants in business by expanding the menu to include hot food items like hot dogs, fried chicken, french fries -- and, of course, a double-decker hamburger, a very hot-ticket item at the time. Initially called the "Fat Boy," a lawsuit brought on by Shoney's Big Boy led to a renaming contest that resulted in the new moniker for the burger and its mascot, "Chubby Decker."

These guys disapproved of the "Fat Boy." 

Chubby Decker mascot

Pick-up counter...

...and order counter. This place was pretty packed for a Sunday night at 9PM.

The Atlanta-area Zestos reached their peak in the mid-1980s, with a total of ten locations at that time. John Livaditis retired shortly thereafter, in 1988, handing the business down to his sons, Jimbo and Lee. The Piedmont Road location that my friends and I visited had been in this spot since 1971.

As you've been able to see from all of the pictures so far, this place really was something special. Either everything inside is original to 1971, or it has been very authentically replicated in later renovations. There was a fun retro vibe to all of the interior furnishings, from the colors of the chairs and booths, to the stonework on the walls, to the various signage including those for the "Pick-Up" and "Order" areas above and the "Skyline Patio" below.

Dining room overview

Note the many different seating styles

Booth close-up

My friends do know about my hobby, and are particularly fascinated by the concept of a broken chain, which reinforces my idea that this sort of interest can extend beyond just our weird little retail niche in this corner of the internet. While here, I thought it would be most authentic to try just a basic vanilla ice cream cone, but sadly they were out of vanilla and I want to say they were out of cones, too. So I got a cup of chocolate instead, which they also included hot fudge with, and let me tell you -- I'm not normally a fan of hot fudge, but it was darn good on this ice cream. The ice cream itself wasn't anything particularly special -- not bad by any means, but not mind-blowing, either -- but the great experience I had more than made up for that, and made this one of my most fun broken chain explorations yet.

My chocolate ice cream, with hot fudge, in a nondescript cup. Zesto did not have custom branded serveware...

...but they did have custom branded paper hats, much like you'd find at Steak 'n Shake or Krispy Kreme. Naturally, I grabbed one.

In fact, all three of us did. And took a selfie in them. Which is now hanging on my fridge.

After we got back from the trip, I was randomly looking up store closures -- as I often do, just to keep up with the latest -- when I was saddened to see that the very Zesto we visited on Piedmont Road was closing, and worse, had already closed down by the time I saw the article. As it turns out, the restaurant's final day was September 18, 2022, a mere two weeks after our visit. Owners Jimbo and Leigh Ann Livaditis sold the property, noting also that "the Piedmont Road location struggled over the last year with labor shortages and issues with people loitering around the restaurant," deterring patronage. "It pains me," said Jimbo. "We like to think we fought the hard fight."

The round glass piece with the Chubby Decker advertisement is actually a screen covering a one-way window from the kitchen. If you look close enough, you can see a chef behind the window.

Close-up of Chubby

Nighttime wide view of the building. I was very happy with how this one turned out.

If nothing else, that explains the absence of vanilla ice cream -- either that was indicative of the challenges the location had been facing, or it was already gearing up for its impending, albeit as-yet-unannounced, closure. (The announcement only came a few days before, on September 15.) As noted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article breaking the news, "The couple does not have special events or promotions planned for the restaurant's final days of service. 'We're sad we can't do this Piedmont location the justice it deserves with the fanfare, but we are spread very thin,' said Leigh Ann Livaditis. 'It will be a quieter closing but we still expect a lot of goodbye visits — and hope we have enough ice cream to serve everyone!'"

Patio fencing detail. I think the "balloons" were permanent fixtures.

The brick fenceposts also were topped by Zesto cones, which I had seen before in research of other Zesto locations and am pretty fascinated by. Kinda reminds me of Sheridan's, another broken chain.

Front view of the building. Note the V-shaped roofline, and how the location was branded specifically as "Zesto on Piedmont."

I'm very glad my friends and I got to visit this Zesto before its final day. It's still crazy to believe that we were here so close to its closure. Maybe it was fate that brought us here. Even though I'm in no way a local, I still feel like it's appropriate to say that this restaurant had a longtime special connection with the community, and it's very sad to see it go. 

Down to just five Atlanta-area restaurants by 2021, a Zesto in the Little Five Points neighborhood was damaged by storms in May of that year and never reopened. With the closure of this location in Buckhead, only two Livaditis family-owned Zestos remain: East Atlanta and Forest Park. ("A franchisee operates a third location in Tyrone," per the AJC.)

Road sign, one last time. The Splash Laundromat and Fiesta Foods store in the background were also included in the sale of the property; it is not clear what is going to happen to any of the three buildings.

Parting shot. I love all the various food items advertised on the signs. "Zesto Broasted Chicken"?!

I'm sure this won't be our last trip to Atlanta, so maybe we'll get the chance to check out one of those other remaining Zestos, and a Chubby Decker sandwich, one day. Or, who knows, maybe we'll even encounter another Zesto somewhere else in the country, and get to see how its operation compares to its long-separated brethren in Atlanta. That "broken" component is what makes broken chains fascinating, after all. And it is worth noting that we did in fact encounter another Zesto on a different road trip earlier in the year, although we did not stop inside...

Much newer-looking Zesto in Omaha, NE, completely unaware of its onetime siblings in ATL


Y'all may have seen a Kroger sign in the background of a few of those Zesto photos. While not that specific location pictured, there is another Kroger elsewhere in Buckhead that's relatively famous -- you might know of it as the "Disco Kroger." The store got its name from the neighboring Limelight nightclub, a popular place in the 70s and 80s whose patrons would often end up wandering into the Kroger next door. Though the Limelight closed in 1987, according to this article, its legacy is preserved in the disco ball inside the Kroger store as well as the large "DISCO" mural painted on another building in the shopping center, shown below.

Naturally, I had to make a quick stop to visit such a famous store -- especially since its fate, much like Zesto's, has been sealed. It was announced in summer 2021 that the property owner will be redeveloping the shopping center, and a new grocery store will be replacing the longtime Kroger anchor (which has been open since 1976). The mural and disco ball will be preserved, but Kroger will be exiting the dance floor. It was further confirmed last month that the store's final day will be December 9, 2022, which is less than one month away.

The store is branded as Kroger Fresh Fare, and features the accompanying late-2000s interior décor package. Though the package was upscale at the time, the fact that it has not remodeled since then might indicate that the store wasn't performing as well in recent years, and thus it may have been an amicable decision to leave rather than a one-sided lease termination.

I didn't get a full tour inside, just a few quick shots here and there -- mostly to say I at least visited the place before its demise. Above, you can see the store's local flair fresh fare mural -- a common feature to these stores -- as well as a fresh fare clock, which is something I'd never seen before! (The time was not accurate, but still.)

Along the back wall, we find the fancy hanging light fixtures and aisle markers, as well as a very deluxe-looking meat and seafood service counter. This décor package focused a lot on impressive-looking visual elements rather than text; notice that all of the department "signs" are pictographs, with no actual spelled-out names in sight.

This was my first time seeing a fresh fare wine department. I really like the hanging trusses -- echoed in the produce department (second image above) -- as well as the gooseneck signs, which I'm assuming are original. Sadly, we did not enter or exit through the main vestibule, so I didn't get a shot of the disco ball, but you can just barely make it out in the background of the first image above, directly above the Kroji sign.

The bakery and deli were very large in this store, which speaks to the fact that one of the initial selling points of the fresh fare concept was the focus on service departments and, especially, hot and prepared food options, which at the time seem to have been more of a deluxe feature in grocery stores. Now, those features are commonplace, and the distinction and draw of the fresh fare concept has been rather diminished. (For more information on fresh fare as well as a full tour of one such store in the Memphis area, check out my flickr album here.)

A quick look at the "thank you" sign along the front end, followed by some more exterior views. The exterior of this store has some very nice-looking architecture to match its upscale interior. The italicized font and green and black colors, respectively, for "fresh fare" and "Pharmacy" also look nice.

Like I said, my tour here was pretty quick, but I have it on good authority that this isn't the last you'll be seeing of the famous Buckhead Disco Kroger. You didn't hear it from me, but you might just want to keep your eyes peeled for a future post on a certain blog from a certain author...


While it's sad that both of the subjects of today's post will no longer exist by the end of this year, I'm still very grateful I got the opportunity to visit and photograph them, and to share them with y'all today. It is Veterans Day as I write this, and I'm thankful for the service of all of our current and past military men and women. Thanksgiving is coming up soon as well, and I'm extremely thankful for the friends I went on this Atlanta road trip with, and I'm thankful for you guys as well for continuing to stick around both here on my blog and on my flickr page, even as my content has become less frequent. If I don't write again before the new year, I wish you and yours a fun, safe, and healthy holiday season. Until next time and as always, thanks for reading, and have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are!

Retail Retell